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What is Vodka?

Vodka is a clear, unaged spirit produced using any ingredient that has fermentable sugars. Cereal grains like rye, barley and wheat are most common, but vodka can also be made with potatoes, grapes or sugar beets, among other things. Though the legal definition of vodka is a “colorless, odorless, flavorless” spirit, differences in aroma and taste can definitely be discerned among brands as well as among those made with different bases. Vodka may be sipped neat, but it is most often mixed in cocktails including like the Vodka Martini, Moscow Mule and Cosmopolitan. The name vodka comes from the Slavic word “zhiznennia voda,” which is interpreted as “little water,” or “water of life.”

History and Production

Though vodka’s exact origins are unknown, it is thought to have first been made either in eighth century Poland, or in the ninth century in what is now Russia. Early vodka was simply fermented to around 14% ABV, sometimes blended with spices to improve its flavor, and sold as medicine. After the still was invented, vodka could be produced at a higher proof and purity. In the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, vodka was produced in Poland, Russia and Scandinavia, and in the eighteenth century, Russia was the first to use charcoal-filtration to filter it to remove impurities.

In the United States, vodka was relatively unknown during Pre-Prohibition times, as bars and imbibers instead favored gin, whiskey and brandy. In 1934, Smirnoff created the first vodka distillery in the United States, and subsequently launched a popular ad campaign to win over fans that included the creation of the vodka and ginger beer cocktail the Moscow Mule, and the tagline: “Smirnoff…it will leave you breathless.” In 1967, vodka surpassed gin as the number one white spirit in the United States, and in 1976 it became the most popular spirit overall.

Vodka can be made with any ingredient that has fermentable sugar. Cereal grains like rye, barley and wheat are most common, but it can also be made with potatoes, grapes and sugar beets, among other things. Potatoes and wheat produce creamier vodkas, rye makes a spicy spirit, and grapes lend delicate floral notes.

Few regulations exist in vodka production. It is usually distilled to a high strength in a column still, though premium versions may be made in a pot still. It is usually filtered once or several times with ingredients ranging from charcoal and quartz to diamonds and silver. Filtration is one part attempt to remove impurities, one part marketing gimmick, and the more times the vodka is filtered, the more aromas and flavors are stripped away. After filtration, vodka is bottled unaged, usually at the standard 80 proof.

Regions & Styles

Since vodka can be made from any ingredients with fermentable sugar, it is produced all over the world. The base material used to distill it affects the aroma, flavor, character and overall style.

  • Regions

    Though there are exceptions, vodkas from different regions have different characteristics:

    Eastern-style vodka from Russia and Poland retains the aromas and flavors of the base material, but it may also seem more spirited or harsh.

    Western-style vodka is produced to be smooth, approachable and relatively neutral, making it a versatile cocktail base as its character does not overshadow the other ingredients in the drink.

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  • Styles

    Classic  vodka is, as described above, produced with any ingredient that has fermentable sugars, usually distilled in a column still, filtered to remove impurities, unaged and bottled at the standard 80 proof.

    Flavored vodka may be infused with any number of natural or artificial ingredients including fruits, vegetables, herbs and spices.

    Bison grass vodka, called Żubrówka in Polish, is traditionally distilled from rye and flavored with a tincture of bison grass (hierochloe odorata), which gives the spirit a slightly yellow color and flavors of vanilla, coconut and almond. Bison grass was banned in the United States in 1978 as it contains coumarin, so versions sold in the U.S. are flavored with other ingredients.

    Overproof vodka is bottled at a much higher strength than the traditional 80 proof. These spirits are often better in cocktails as retain more of their original flavor.

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